Thursday, November 8, 2012

Guilty As Charged

The attacker of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killer of six, Jared Loughner, was sentenced to life imprisonment today. The judge commented that this was only the finalization of the legal proceedings, the emotions would, perhaps, never heal. Juxtapose this alongside the Anders Breivik verdict in Norway where Breivik killed seventy-seven people. He was found guilty, as well. For reasons I find inexplicable, it was important for the Norwegians to find him guilty rather than insane.

Their cases are extreme, but they highlight the problems of dealing with crime; beginning, of course, with the very definition of crime. Suffice it to say that crime is not a fixed commodity unassailable and invariable from society to society, but rather a consensual process of a people or a polity. Crime in a totalitarian state is very different from crime in a tribal society. What one does about crime differs widely depending on where one places the origins of crime and what one wants to accomplish when dealing with crime and criminals.

For sake of argument, let’s define “crime” as an infraction of the Basic Rule, aka the Golden Rule: someone does something to someone that that person didn’t want done to them. Simple enough, if difficult to translate into practicality. A crime is an injury to another person (which, by extension, covers the environment). Despite the complexities of the law, we all have a basic understand of right and wrong within the context of our culture. We are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, which is shaped by our environment.

I’m not here to argue, today, about what constitutes a crime, though; I’m more concerned with how we react to crime as a culture, as a people. The first thing to be decided is what one (or we) wants to accomplish when confronting crime and its perpetrators. The simplest desire and the route we have chosen for the most part is revenge, punishment. Crime is seen as an individual decision and that one should suffer commensurate with one’s offense. Or more or less, depending on one’s station in life. It’s most clearly expressed in the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth philosophy. It’s easy to understand and satisfies that longing for revenge, for getting even. And since one can’t get even with one’s boss or the policeman or the bureaucrat, one can at least send some bastard to the hole for life. Take that, you scoundrel!

If you’ve been wronged, wanting pay-back is easy to fathom.

But one might have other goals. If the crime didn’t happen to you, getting even might not be so important. Revenge might not be as important as protection. “I’m sorry that it happened to you, but I don’t want it to happen to me. In fact, I’m more concerned with it not happening to me than I am with your getting revenge.”

That’s a whole different ball game, focusing on protecting one’s self against crime, rather than on punishing the criminal. If one looks at crime as a problem to be solved, not a behavior to be punished, one will approach it entirely differently.

To be sure, the reigning paradigm for all history has been that people should be punished, not only for their transgressions, but to scare the shit out of them so they won’t do it again. Setting aside whether or not people should be punished for their sins, the question is begged, is the scaring the shit out of people effective? One could ask that in the larger scale; since crime has historically gone down through the centuries, does that mean people are more frightened of punishment now, or did crime go down for other reasons? It doesn’t seem that the punishments of today are particularly worse than the punishments of, say a thousand years ago; and, if what I read of how they did things in those days is true, then things, water-boarding excepted, etc., are better today than the rack or burning by fire, etc. Besides that, I think they’ve done more than enough studies to understand that crime and punishment aren’t as interdependent as one would think. Other than punishment creates crime; this they know. If one wants to create a criminal class, America has written the textbook on how to do it. Punishment is not such a good deterrent but it’s an effective generator of crime.

This is where the dilemma of dealing with criminals comes in: how much crime is one willing to suffer to be able to extract revenge? How important to one is the ability to extract revenge? This is not a trivial question, because every degree of punishment that society metes out is returned ten-fold. Vengeance is very expensive. Punishment has an enormous trickle-down effect.

Ultimately, how one deals with crime revolves around the arcane and oft misunderstood subject of freewill: whether one subscribes to it or not. In simple form, it says that, if there is freewill, punishment is morally acceptable, even if not effective: it satisfies moral indignation. On the other hand, if there’s not freewill, punishment will never be successful in the long run nor effective in the short. Furthermore, it finds punishment immoral. (How can one be punished for something over which they have no control?)

The question of freewill hinges on how one understands the thinking process to take place. One school claims that all thinking is done on a subconscious level not currently available to human understanding. The other school, well, the other school doesn’t know how thinking actually works, but they’re quite sure they do it.

(Sam Harris has an interesting exercise he likes to do with audiences to explain the subconscious nature of thought. He asks everyone to imagine some famous person in their mind. Got one? Good. Then he asks, why that person? Why did you think of that person, rather than someone else? How did you decide which image to draw up from your memory bank?)

The trap people fall into is conflating words with thinking. Because much of thinking is translated into words, we tend to think that the arrival of words in our consciousness is the result of conscious choice, as if we looked at all the synonyms and chose the one closest to our needs, rather than simply grasping the first word to come out of the air. If we had to actually choose the words that make up our sentences by selecting them one-by-one from known vocabulary lists, we’d never be able to talk and thinking would take forever. Thinking, like talking, is done without conscious intervention. When one sits around scratching one’s head waiting for an answer, that’s exactly what one is doing, waiting for an answer; and the answer, when it comes, simply pops into one’s head without warning. Where was the thinking? Deep, deep down where only elves can see it. Not us.

And should you wonder, I’d argue that all creatures think, words or not. I’d also argue that none of us knows how we do it.

Breivik and Loughner, are they guilty? They certainly did what they were accused of. Were they insane? That’s as sticky a wicket as any other, what’s “insane”? Their actions certainly weren’t helpful and they definitely contradicted the Basic Rule and they probably need careful monitoring for the rest of their lives, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time arguing about definitions. I’d get right on to the practical questions of how to house, feed, and make use of them for the rest of their born days. But vengeance? I’d give that a pass. Too expensive and doesn’t work. And, you know, it doesn’t even feel that good.

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